Best Books of 2021

Well, 2021 is behind us. I join many others by sharing a list of the best books I read during the year. Some were published in 2021, others many years ago.

Craft

If you’ve ever wanted to ask some of the world’s greatest mystery writers for their advice on writing, Howdunit: A Master Class in Crime Writing by Members of The Detection Club. Founded in the early 1920s, and it is likely the world’s foremost and most elite mystery writers organization. You must be invited to join and originally only people from the UK could be members. It’s really more like a social club than anything else as it was created as a way for the members to get together for a very nice dinner. This book however, it not simple dinner reading. With advice on every aspect of writing from motives, people, plots, and places, to writing with a partner, challenges, and publishing there is great advice in every essay. You see, each of the famous authors, including Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, G.K. Chesterton, P.D. James, Ann Cleeves, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, and many more, have written short essays full of wisdom, help, and personal stories. Whether you’ve published no books (there’s also advice on short stories) or a hundred books, there’s something here for you.

How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America by [Mystery Writers of America, Lee Child, Laurie R. King]

If one book on craft from some of the greatest writers in the UK is fantastic, adding another book on craft from some of the greatest writers in North America makes things even better.

Mystery Writers of America has published a volume similar to the one above, but totally complimentary. Writers such as Kelley Armstrong (one of my favorites), Charlaine Harris (how can someone so sweet write about sex and murder), William Kent Krueger, Tess Gerritsen, Lee Child, Laurie R. King, Charles Todd, and many others give us advice on topics such as outlining, free-writing, the short mystery, protagonists, villains, community, and many other topics.

Paired with advice from across the pond, How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, gives you practically MFA advice on mystery and thriller writing. Another must-read for the mystery author.

Non-Fiction

I was nine in the summer of 1969. My parents had bought a cab-over camper for the pickup truck and we were headed out on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Mom and dad rode in the cab of the truck and the four of us kids spread out in the area over the cab, laying on our stomachs, chin in our hands, watching the road in front of us through the tiny rectangular window. Dad had rigged up an intercom so we could talk to the cab if needed, but the sound quality was really bad. One day as we rolled along a two lane highway in the desert, mom came on the intercom and tried to play the radio broadcast to us, but it was totally unintelligible. So, dad stopped the truck and we all piled into the cab so we could listen to the first manned landing on the moon. For as far as I could up and down both sides of the highway, it seemed like there were dozens of cars stopped — people doing the same thing we were. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my hometown played a major part in the Apollo program. About an hour away was the location where the Saturn V booster rockets were made. Many of the people who worked there lived in my town. It was likely the parents of some of the kids I went to school with worked there. Years later, I got to tour the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. An entire Apollo rocket is there, laying on it’s side. The Saturn V booster is longer (taller?) than three football fields, including the end zones. A single exhaust module was taller than me.

One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon brought back all those feelings I had as a kid, listening to that landing and watching the space shots on TV. Charles Fishman has written a great book that talks about the problems of going to the moon, the opposition to manned space flight, and the great successes. He has facts that few people ever knew. And make sure you read the acknowledgements at the end to learn one interesting fact about the Lunar Module.

Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood by [Danny Trejo, Donal Logue]

When a retired cop friend told me if I wanted to know what’s it’s really like inside a prison, I should read Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood by Danny Trejo.

If you’re not familiar with Danny Trejo, rent some of his movies. But long before becoming an actor, he was a bad dude. A very bad dude. As he put it, “I was the Mexican you don’t want to meat.” He was in and out of California’s best known and most notorious prisons. At one point, while in the LA County Jail, he protected Charles Manson. Yeah, THAT Charles Manson. Yeah, that’s how tough Danny Trejo was.

But one day, Trejo decided he wanted something better than wondering when he would die in prison. He got off drugs. He stopped drinking. He found God.

And when he was finally paroled he went to work for substance abuse centers. Then he opened one, two, several. He spent his life helping others.

One day, he happened to get a gig in a movie. And his life changed. He was making money. Lots of money. He was traveling the world.

But his family life was awful. He had been married and divorced several times. He had kids who were on drugs. He was totally happy.

Don’t just read this book to learn about prison life. Read this book to inspire you to make your life better. And to help others make their lives better. Danny Trejo is an inspiration we can all learn from.

Fiction

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The Echo Killing is the debut novel from journalist Christi Daughtery and she does not disappoint. It’s clear the author has used her experience to tell this story. Harper McClain is a crime reporter for a newspaper in Savannah, Georgia. When a woman is stabbed to death in her kitchen. Harper watches as the twelve year old daughter who reported the murder is led out of the house by the same policeman who led Harper from her mother’s murder scene fifteen years earlier. But when Harper sneaks into the back yard of the house, she discovers the scene is also identical to her mother’s. She begins to suspect the same killer has returned and sets out to prove it when the police tell her it was not the same killer. There are a couple of things that don’t ring accurate, such as Harper having a cast on her arm after getting shot in the shoulder, but over all an extremely well written book full of suspense and intrigue.

The G-String Murders

I enjoy mysteries coming from unexpected writers. In the past I’ve read some from A.A. Milne and Gore Vidal with several more on my list. When I heard that Gypsy Rose Lee, perhaps the most famous stripper that ever lived, had written a mystery, it immediately jumped to the top of my list. They say you should write what you know, and she did. In The G-String Murders, Gypsy inserts herself right into the story as both the narrator and main character (but not the detective). Written in the Golden Age of Mystery, in 1941, she’s working at a burlesque house in New York City where other strippers are murdered. Gypsy does an amazing job with this book by weaving a story filled with suspects, red herrings, and real clues. It’s all there for you. You also learn about the world of burlesque shows. This is a well-done, fair play mystery. It was probably scandalous in its time and the movie adaptation, starring Barbara Stanwyck had to be renamed to Lady of Burlesque because “G-String” couldn’t get past the censors. The G-String Murders is worth your time.

When we think of the great detectives in American Hard-boiled Noir, two stand out. The first is Sam Spade created by Dashiell Hammett in the Maltese Falcon. The second is Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. Both these detectives came out about a decade apart with Spade being the first of the two. I often get these two mixed up. It doesn’t help that Humphry Bogart played both characters in the movies.

Back in 2014, a new Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde came out, written by Benjamin Black, which is a pen-name for Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. I have to say, this book is every bit as good as any Marlowe story Chandler wrote. In fact, it’s as if Black channeled Raymond Chandler.

In this story, Marlowe is hired by Clare Cavendish to find her boyfriend who she saw on the street in San Francisco. Except, her boyfriend was declared dead two week prior. Marlowe sets out to figure out if the boyfriend is dead or alive and in general what’s going on. I don’t want to play spoiler so I’ll leave things there.

I figured out some of the mystery here, but not all of it, even though all the clues are there. Black does a masterful job of hiding them, many in plain sight. At times, I laughed out loud. I read passages to my writer wife because they were so well written. You can’t go wrong with The Black-Eyed Blonde. Five stars!

Who is Maud Dixon?: A Novel by [Alexandra Andrews]

When Florence Darrow loses her job as a low-level employee of a New York publisher her future looks bleak. She’s always wanted to be a novelist and she was using the job as a spring board.

But her future quickly changes when she is offered a job as the assistant to the mysterious author Maud Dixon, who’s first novel was a huge hit. There are just two conditions. The first, she must sign an NDA to keep Maud’s real identity secret. Second, she must move to upstate New York and live in the small cottage behind Maud’s home. Of course, Florence accepts.

But soon, strange things start happening. And when Maud metes out her history, it sounds strange. Maud is not all she seems to be and her past is as mysterious as her future. Things get especially strange when Maud suddenly decides the two of them are going to Morocco for research on her new book. Then, Florence drives them off a cliff and into the ocean where Maud’s body disappears.

There are so many twists in this book, but that’s what kept me going. I guessed some of them were coming, but many others took me by surprise.

Alexandra Andrews has done an amazing job of twisting the real Maud with the fictional in Who is Maud Dixon? This is one book you need to read.

One of the best known American mystery writers from the Golden Age of Mystery was Dashiell Hammett. Most of us are familiar with the move The Maltese Falcon, based on his novel of the same name. Much of this book was written at John’s Grill, a San Francisco landmark today. You can still enjoy a meal there. The Dashiell Hammett Society meets there on the third floor in a room named “Hammet’s Den.” The doorway features a statue of the Maltese Falcon.

But this post isn’t about Hammett. It’s about his novels. He only ever published five. Four of the five are the the 100 Top Crime Novels of All Time list from Mystery Writer’s of America. I found an old 1960’s book club edition of a collection of these novels at a used bookstore for $4.00.

The first, Red Harvest, was on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005 and number 94 on the MWA list.

The story is told from the view of the Continental Op, an agent of a fictional detective agency based in San Francisco. His name is never given, but he is sent to Butte, Montana to settle a labor dispute.

The second novel, The Dain Curse, continues the adventures of the Continental Op, this time in his home-base of San Francisco. He investigates the theft of diamonds from a family. A family who believes they are cursed as people in their vicinity suffer sudden and violent deaths.

The Maltese Falcon is the best known and number ten on the MWA list. Sam Spade, a San Francisco P.I. is hired to find a woman’s sister, but he gets involved in a smuggling and extortion ring. Humphry Bogart was unforgetable in his portrayal of Spade in the great 1941 film adaptation.

Next up is The Glass Key and it ranks #31 from MWA. Gambler Ned Beaumont gets hired as a special investigator by the District Attorney to investigate the murder of a senator’s son. But Beaumont has close ties to the senator’s corrupt rival. Can Beaumont be impartial? Will he catch the killer? Will he stay true to his pal?

Hammet’s final novel was The Thin Man, which introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles. Hollywood picked up on this pair and spun off several movies of their adventures. But in the original, Nick and Nora have traveled from their home in San Francisco to spend Christmas and New Year’s in New York. Nick had once been a P.I. there. He is asked to investigate the murder of the lover of someone he once investigated. He never does take the case, yet he is involved right from the start. MWA ranks The Thin man at #31.

Hammett never did publish another novel. But in her forward to the edition I have, his long-time lover, the famous author, playwrite, and screenwriter Lillian Hellman says she had an unfinished novel he was working on when he died. As far as I know, the unfinished novel has never been published.

With four books on the top 100 list, you can’t go wrong reading any or all of the works of Hammett. And if you’re ever in San Francisco, I recommend you stop by for a bite at John’s Grill.

The Chestnut Man: A Novel by [Soren Sveistrup]

Naia Thulin is ready to leave the Major Case squad in Denmark for a new position with the cybercrimes unit, NC3. But when she’s suddenly paired with Hess, a screw-up from Europol in the Hague who has been sent back to Denmark, she can’t wait to get out. They are soon assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings a gruesome murder where a woman had her hands cut off with a saw. A single clue is left behind, a doll made out of chestnuts…a chestnut man. But this clue is more strange as it has the fingerprint of a girl who had been kidnapped and assume killed (a man confessed) a year ago. The girl was the daughter of government minister Rosa Hartung. The killings become more gruesome and more of the girl’s fingerprints keep turning up. Police leaders state it’s coincidence and the girl is dead but something keeps bothering Thulin and Hess.

In his debut novel, Søren Sveistrup has put together a masterpiece procedural. Gripping, intense, complex, spooky, thrilling, The Chestnut Man is a absolute must read. This may be the best book I read all year.

We’ve all heard stories of the celebrity who is stalked by a psycho fan. But we’ve never heard it as told in Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir Inspired by True Events written by Brent Spiner.

The story opens on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Spiner is removing the gold makeup that turns him into Mr. Data. There is a knock on his trailer door and a large package, a gift from a fan, is delivered. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what’s in the box, but I’ll just say it shocks Spiner and freaks him out. It rreaked me out too.

The story continues with Spiner pulling in the LAPD, the FBI, a body guard, visiting with numerous friends, and telling stories of life on and off the set of his TV series, as they all try to find out the identity of the fan.

The line gets blurred between fact and what’s fiction. You’ll read a chapter and swear it’s fiction. But is it?

Oh yeah, the book is laugh-out-loud funny. Absolutely one of the best books of the year. Even if you’re not a fan of TNG, you’ll love this book.

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